Innovation with Pride

Bay County Utility Services copes with weather, economic, and demand variation challenges in managing an award-winning distribution system
Innovation with Pride
The Bay County Utility Services Water Division team includes, from left, distribution technicians Jason Shuller, Ray Johns, Frank Coatney, Eddie Hansen, Rich Sumner, Ben Phillips, Jonas Suggs, Allan Whitfield and Bruce Jones, and distribution foreman Michael Anderson.

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In the words of Donald Hamm, Bay County Utility Services Water Division superintendent, “This is not your typical service area.”

Bay County, Fla., is one of the state’s major spring break destinations. That means water system loads are highly seasonal, driven in large part by tourism. Water demand ranges from 18 mgd in winter to a peak of 40 mgd on a typical spring break weekend. Sizing the system to handle these peaks means that for much of the year, the system runs far below capacity.

That creates challenges, as do a slow economy and the area’s vulnerability to hurricanes. But BCUS has met those challenges, and others, with finesse. In return, the agency has won recognition. The Florida Section of the American Water Works Association named the BCUS Water Division the 2009 winner of its Outstanding Distribution System award in Division 2 (6,000-13,000 services).

The Florida section gives such awards in each of eight divisions annually. Mike George, distribution award chairman, notes, “We get dozens of award applications in each division. Winning this award provides well-deserved recognition. It means they do their job well and take pride in their system.”


Supply side

All of BCUS’s potable water comes from Deer Point Lake, a reservoir covering 5,810 acres to a depth of 10 to 15 feet. It gets 40 percent of its water directly from rainfall and the rest from four reliable tributaries. Mike Anderson, distribution foreman, notes, “When we get a large rain event, the additional runoff affects the particulate count in the lake, and so we need to make corresponding adjustments at the treatment plant.”

Runoff problems are forestalled by the Deer Point Lake Advisory Commission, as well as Florida Fish & Wildlife. Both work with BCUS to educate residents around the lake about proper disposal of materials that could harm water quality.

Deer Point Lake is also heavily used for recreation, and that can create more water-quality problems. “But even during drought conditions we still get 150 to 300 mgd going over the dam spillway and into the bay, so that pretty much takes care of flushing out any petroleum residue and other floating debris,” Hamm says.

One of the tributaries runs through an agricultural area, so in a large rain event the lake takes in some phosphorus from fertilizer in the runoff. But it’s a small amount of the total watershed, and with near-continuous flushing over the spillway, algae blooms have not been an issue.

One factor in the 2009 award was a project to increase the flow rate from Deer Point Lake by upgrading the Williams Bayou pumping station, a $3.8 million project that came in $500,000 under budget and increased pumping from 50 mgd to 60 mgd.

“That involved adding more pumping capacity at the reservoir intakes, which had to be extended, and three new filters at the treatment plant, each capable of handling up to 6 mgd,” Hamm says. “Before that, we were right at the edge of having enough capacity.”

The increased pumping capacity will also allow the first drawdown of the reservoir since 2004. Periodic drawdowns are essential for proper weed control and are now part of routine annual maintenance, helping to ensure a quality water supply.


Hazards of the Gulf

Threats can also come from outside the district. The BP Deep Water Horizon blowout happened about 350 miles west of Bay County. “Some of the oil got close, but Gulf circulation kept it out of our bay,” says Hamm. “We had no oil on our shoreline. BP gave us a grant to install a gate across the bay’s opening, which we did, since we do have a port, but we didn’t need to close it.”

Hurricanes, of course, present threats as well, not the least of which would be a breach of the dam at Deer Point Lake. Anderson recalls, “Back in 2004 we had Hurricane Ivan, which hit Category 5. But as with the BP blowout, we dodged the bullet on that one. We got some heavy winds and debris, but no damage to our system.”

BCUS is looking into the potential for another 30 mgd drawn from a well field for an emergency backup supply (see sidebar). “It was kind of a post-Katrina thing,” Hamm says, “What if a hurricane takes out the dam? What would we do then?”


Proactive procedures

Supply water quality is monitored electronically at the intakes in the reservoir, where measurements of turbidity, pH, and color are streamed to a continuously monitored database. “We’ve got about 40 minutes lead time before that water reaches the treatment plant, so that gives us plenty of time to react and adjust treatment options before the water actually gets there,” Hamm says.

With the overall system sized for peak capacity, and other large mains installed proactively in anticipation of future development (which has stalled out in the current economy), regular flushing of the system is essential. BCUS has 50 auto-flushers at various points where low flow could create problems. They are monitored weekly for proper operation, and field samples are taken for quality control.

“We also manually flush mainline hydrants on a regular schedule, using a pitot diffuser to document gallons used,” Anderson says. “Field samples for water quality are taken before and during each event.”

To prevent future problems when new customers come online, BCUS utility inspector Curt Miller gets involved. “We don’t touch their lines and they don’t touch ours,” Miller says. “But it’s my job to ensure total compliance with code. Once they’ve passed those inspections, I’ll give the go-ahead to turn on their water.”


Bringing the work in-house

Before 2007, repairs of any breaks to pipe larger than six inches were contracted out. After looking more closely at the economics, BCUS chose to invest in the equipment needed to bring all that work in-house. “That decision has been saving the county about $75,000 each year,” Hamm notes.

The agency’s track record for breaks is good by industry standards: Only about 10 repairs on 6-inch or larger pipes have been needed over the last few years. Likewise for residential service leaks, which are handled promptly by Customer Service protocols, and average about three per week. BCUS field crews are sufficiently skilled and versatile, capable of working on up to 54-inch pipe, or simply replacing a residential meter.

BCUS also brought service line extensions in-house and fields an impressive array of equipment to handle that task. The equipment fleet includes a Komatsu 220 excavator, Bobcat 325 mini excavator, three John Deere 310 backhoes,two dump trucks, a vacuum trailer (Vac-Con), a valve exerciser and vacuum trailer (Hurco Technologies), a second Transmate TapMate valve exerciser (Romac Industries), MALA ground-penetrating radar, three GPS units (Trimble), and a John Deere utility tractor (with attaching Bushmasters).

Metering of services has been upgraded considerably. “At one time we had a situation where some commercial customers weren’t being metered,” says Miller. “We now have every customer metered, and we’ve added master meters on the 6-inch mains.”

Now, if the total of the individual customer meter readings is less than what the master meter shows, BCUS staff know either that a customer is not being metered, or that there is a leak in the system somewhere downstream of the master meter.

Of course, the downside to doing things in-house is it takes a lot of strong backs in the field. Workers often lack experience, and turnover can be high. This means ongoing education programs in safety and work methods are essential. “Our training programs run the gamut from CPR to MOT (Maintenance of Traffic) to confined-space to trenching,” says Anderson. “We do most of it in-house, but we occasionally bring in speakers or manufacturers’ representatives.”


The bottom line

In this business, the bottom line is providing an uninterrupted supply of high-quality drinking water. Taste is part of what defines water quality, and Florida runs a water taste competition each year. Hamm notes, “We’ve won at the regional level, and qualified for the final 12 at state, but we have yet to win that award.”

The BCUS team is a relatively new group, all of whom came to Bay County from other jobs in the same industry. That means experience is a given. They have learned to work well as a team and to recognize where their strengths are.

“The award was not about us being better than our predecessors, and I’d never claim that,” Hamm says. “But we are doing things differently, finding ways to innovate, and learning how to adapt to the budget reductions that come with a slow economy.”

And BCUS is proud of having avoided staff layoffs. The operational budget is under an enterprise fund and is based strictly on rates. Those rates were adjusted upward about five years ago, before the economic downturn. “That’s why the money we saved bringing more work in-house was so crucial,” says Hamm. “When you’ve got as good a crew as we do, you hate to let them go, and we haven’t had to do that, at least not yet. Those savings were a large part of why we won the award.”

When pressed for a comment about what BCUS is doing well, and from which others in the business could learn, Hamm responds, “I don’t want to sound vague, but it really all comes down to simple teamwork, communicating at all levels, from the county commissioners down to the field crews, and empowering the team at all levels to make decisions when they need to.

“If we can save the customers money, we all feel proud.” And so they should.


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